Build and you will use it seems to be the theory behind Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal's new pet project: streetcars criss-crossing Long Beach. Or perhaps it is her turn to support something because the City Council wasted money, yet again, on a consultant and money spent needs defense.
It seems a few years ago the Long Beach City Council paid $69,000 to a consultant to look into the feasibility of putting street cars into Long Beach. Naturally the feasibility is great, otherwise the $69,000 would have been a waste. We'll just widen a street here, take out parking there, lay track at $25 million per mile, and once built the streetcars will be magical. Businesses will spring up along the tracks, Southern Californians will give up their cars and all of downtown's retail woes will be solved.
When it comes to the pro-streetcar crowd they love to quote development in other cities where streetcar lines have been added, and say things like, "streetcars aren't about transportation they are about development." That's good because like the data being released by the White House on jobs created by the Stimulus Package the numbers released by cities on the development resulting from streetcar lines is just as cooked. Take Portland for instance, the beacon of light for those who want to add a streetcar line to a city near you, or around you if you live in Long Beach. Portland boasts of $2.8 billion in new development because of its streetcar lines being put in; and politicians like Lowenthal are quit to quote the number. Has she bothered to Google the figures? Virtually every new development that has occurred within three blocks of the street car line are tossed into the $2.8 billion dollar number. Including hundreds of millions of dollars spent by Portland State Univeristy, millions spent on parking garages, new office buildings that were in planning stages before the streetcars went in, and on and on.
Also not mentioned are the subsidies spent by Portland, over $1 billion and counting, to sustain the streetcars and other light rail, encourage development and try to sustain the projects. But money is not the problem for Long Beach. Lowenthal says it won't cost Long Beach residents anything from the General Fund, we'll just use Federal dollars--it's not as if we pay Federal taxes so it must be OPM, Other-People's-Money. Not surprising for liberal politicians to consider Federal money "free money" to the recipients, Lowenthal is ready for the Democratic Caucus in Congress. If hundreds of millions of dollars are available to build a street car why is that same money not available to improve our current transportation system? Why not use those funds to improve existing corridors and bus routes? Why not let the Federal government keep the money, lower our taxes and extend credits to small businesses? Because it's not pretty and red and has a bell that goes clang-clang as it creeps down the street.
The purpose of the streetcars is development. Development of downtown Long Beach which has seen hundreds of millions of dollars spent on it behalf over the years, from shiny new upscale condo towers, to funky new lights, to redevelopment funds for businesses, to The Pike and Aquarium. And still Pine, Long Beach Boulevard, Atlantic, Broadway, etc have vacant store fronts and businesses that open and close before their first anniversary. Streetcars are the latest "thing" that will finally get a consistent and significant amount of spending by consumers downtown, supposedly. Streetcar development is dependent on high density housing. Downtown Long Beach has plenty of high density housing, unfortunately most of it in the immediate surrounding areas is high density use in low density buildings.
Until our politicians look at the reality and quit using poli-speech to describe problems the problems will never be addressed. Downtown retail is not a failure because there is no way for people from other parts of the city or region to get there--the 710 terminates downtown, several bus lines from Bixby Knolls to Belmont Shore terminate there, a bridge from the Harbor Freeway and San Pedro terminates there, the Blue Line terminates there, the Passport was created for there. Downtown retail is a failure because it is surrounded by low cost, overcrowded, gang infested housing and neighborhoods. While an upscale residential base has been increasing downtown, it is not enough to sustain any consistent retail development. In the meantime within half to three quarters of a mile of Broadway and Pine are over thousands of low income housing units that are overcrowded and surrounding downtown. A hundred thousand people, probably more, who don't shop downtown, don't eat downtown and cost downtown, and the rest of the city, millions in public safety, health and other services.
City Hall keeps approving and looking to add low cost housing to Long Beach, most of it around the downtown area, then on the next agenda item spend more money on more studies to try to find a way to get retail development downtown to take hold and succeed. Lowenthal's desire for streetcars is just the latest idea to syphon more funds in the future from the General Fund to sink into the downtown retail black hole--and along the way encourage high density development.
Maybe it is time for City Hall and council members from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th to take a look north of the 405 for a change. Take a look at Bixby Knolls and the redevelopment and re-invigoration that has been occurring along Atlantic Avenue. New businesses opening and while struggling are succeeding, despite the economic downturn. Vacant buildings being creatively used for the community. Clean streets. Building owners slowly renovating their facades and interiors. A very vibrant relationship between local businesses and surrounding communities. All without a streetcar and very little investment from the City, especially when compared to the investments made downtown and in other parts of the city. But it was all done with one common factor, Blair Cohn who is the leader of the Bixby Knolls Business Association. He was determined to forge a positive relationship between local businesses and local residents, and it is working. Where is that leadership downtown?
Instead of spending another $500,000 plus next year to continue the study of streetcar feasibility, and another $1 million plus the year after that to continue the process, it would instead behoove Lowenthal and her constituents to promote the use of current public transportation, including the Passport bus line that was created specifically for what Lowenthal wants the streetcars to achieve: bring people downtown. If you want downtown retail to succeed and people from Bixby Knolls, Belmont Heights, El Dorado Park Estates, Los Altos to go downtown and spend money, give them something to go for besides a few restaurants and a 7/11.
In the meantime, let's cut our spending losses on the streetcar idea before the city gets sucked into a spending hole for the future. It we don't Long Beach will have a streetcar nicknamed quagmire.